At Porter College, art and life intertwine

Sean Keilen, Porter College's provost, said that the core course is the foundation for a student’s undergraduate experience, providing “deep immersion into academic life and culture.” Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta.
A 32-foot intricately carved redwood totem pole stands among some trees in the quad.

It’s hard to tell what is more alive and thriving at Porter College: the redwood trees that surround it, or the public art scattered throughout it.

Entering the college from the parking lot, you’ll be greeted by an abstract rust-colored sculpture, as tall as a person and much wider.

Further along, a bell roughly the size and shape of a loaf of sourdough sits suspended in the shade of some bushes. A 32-foot intricately carved redwood totem pole stands among some trees in the quad. These sculptures speak volumes about Porter’s ethos. Instead of being tucked away in an art gallery, they’re a part of everyday life in the college.

“In Porter, we use art as a way of expressing ourselves,” explains Porter student Andrea Diaz (Porter ‘18, film and digital media).

Porter students major in every discipline at the University, but as a group, they have a special attachment to the arts and the college, originally known as College Five, has had a fine arts focus since its inception in 1969. In its first year as a college, Barbara Sesnon Cartan, a Bay Area philanthropist, gave UC Santa Cruz a gift to establish an art gallery for College Five. The naming gift honored Cartan’s mother, Mary Porter Sesnon.

Shortly after, Barbara Cartan and her siblings gave 66.7 acres of land in Soquel to the university. In 1981, proceeds from the land sale created an endowment large enough to rename the college in honor of the siblings’ grandfather, Benjamin F. Porter, an early resident of Santa Cruz County.

The Porter College core course, Composition, Creative Inquiry, and the Arts, explores the relationship between critical thinking and the creative process. It approaches the arts not only as objects of study, but also as instances of research, design, composition, and revision.

“The core course is the foundation for a student’s undergraduate experience,” said Sean Keilen, Porter’s provost. The course “provides deep immersion into academic life and culture.”

Tiny writing groups supplement the larger core class meetings to ensure each student’s writing process involves plenty of feedback from their peers and instructor. Students experience the artistic process firsthand through art workshops at the Mary Porter Sesnon gallery. There is a chance to exhibit artwork at EnCore, an art show at the end of the quarter.

A college of opportunities

Provost Keilen, who is also an associate professor of literature, urges students to take advantage of funding opportunities for student-led projects, including travel grants for undergraduates who want to take their creativity on the road. Camellia Boutros (Porter ‘16, computer science and music) used the Nathan Foley-Mendelssohn Travel Scholarship in Porter to travel to the West Bank, where she taught music to Palestinian children for a summer.

Porter funds local projects, too. Makenna Pearlman Bantillo (Porter ‘18, psychology) received a Porter College Undergraduate Fellowship to fund a dance performance she will direct at the Barn Theater near the base of campus next fall. The fellowship will fund dancer trainings, equipment, and improvements to the stage. Bantillo encourages her fellow students to pursue these opportunities. “You expect the proposal to be a lot more difficult than it is,” Bantillo said. “It’s really simple to apply for these things.”

Students who need a creative outlet are welcome to join Porter’s MakerSpace Co-op, a den with art supplies and equipment. This space is full of large tables for working. There are tall shelves with paint and other supplies. Larger tools like a sewing machine and a 3D printer are available. Students share tips and techniques with one another and work joyfully on their crafts.

An inspirational setting for student artists

The physical aspects of Porter are as conducive to creativity as the college’s programs. Students find inspiration just by sitting on the sculpture informally known as the Porter Squiggle, a large red metal artwork whose shape is open to interpretation. To some passersby, the sculpture by Kenny Farrell (Porter ‘74, art), dating to 1974, resembles a wave. To others, it looks like a doctor’s signature at the bottom of a prescription order. Even the actual name of this piece—“Untitled”—gives plenty of room for a student’s wandering imagination.

To quietly reflect on their creative ideas, students head to the famous Porter koi pond. Massive fish, some of them almost as old as Porter college itself, swim about in the triangular stone pool. The fountain in the center of the pond provides ambient sounds of trickling water, just loud enough to drown out the rest of campus.

The two main residential buildings, Porter A and Porter B, surround a small grassy area known as the Porter quad. The semi-enclosed space encourages the social life of Porter students, who run into each other in this congregated space.

“To me the layout of the residential buildings is like a blank canvas,” notes student Christian Bernal (Porter ‘18, music).

Bernal explains how the features of the college foster creativity. The building’s concrete sides host student murals that change every year. There is a stage for performances and a large grassy area for students who want to draw and paint on the lawn. Sound reverberates between the two concrete buildings, creating natural amplification. It’s common to see students practicing ukulele, guitar, or accordion on the benches.

Famous alumni

The college is a hotbed for creativity, so it’s no wonder Porter has been home to some of UC Santa Cruz’s stellar artists and performers, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in the arts. Maya Rudolph (Porter ‘95, art) is famous for her work on Saturday Night Live, after which she went on to roles in film and television. Kenneth Corday (Porter ‘75, aesthetic studies) is the executive producer of Days of Our Lives, and was recently recognized with a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.

Porter alumni seem to have an affinity for the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Kalen Egan (Porter ‘05, film) produced Amazon’s Man in the High Castle series, based on Dick’s novel. Tod Machover, a Porter music student in the 1970s, composed an opera based on Dick’s novel Valis.

Porter students don’t need to leave the college for a brush with fame. One afternoon in the early 1980s, jazz legend Dave Brubeck came to Porter College after he received an invitation from Monte Brill (Porter ‘83, art), who had made a sculpture honoring “Take Five”, a composition made famous by the Brubeck Quartet. That afternoon, Brubeck and Brill took turns sitting on the chair-like structures of the sculpture and sipped champagne with other students. The sculpture remains in the college today.